A hallmark of sustainable cities, buses are the workhorse of urban public transport. Buses are essential for college students, office staff, factory workers, domestic help, homemakers, caregivers, and many others to access livelihoods, education, and services.
Much before the advent of new mobility solutions like Uber and Ola which were presented as shared mobility services providers, buses have been modestly providing those services in a manner far more affordable both to the pocket and the environment. Indispensable to city life, buses also served as the only operational mode of public transport in India during the pandemic despite financial hiccups and Covid-19 induced fears.
It is well established that cities that prioritize public transport cut air pollution and bring down carbon emissions more systematically by decreasing the dependence on personal motorized vehicles. Despite this, cities in India continue to pander to the needs of the automobile users by developing harmful and exclusionary infrastructure such as flyovers; a shift in priority which is intensifying the assault on the quality of air and everyday life.
Buses have been and continue to be ignored in financial and infrastructural discussions on mobility; and we cannot afford missing this mode of maximum in the conversations on air pollution as well. A focus on buses is the essential overhaul which is long due in imagining and designing interventions to address air pollution. If the aspect of a robust bus-based public transport system remains unaddressed, the transition from grey to green can come to a screeching halt.
So, for a few moments, let’s clean the smoke and let the clear picture emerge.
PERSONAL TO PUBLIC
Emissions from the transport sector are a major contributor to climate change, affecting both the local air quality and the global climate. Before the lockdown, India’s urban pollution as measured by PM 2.5 level (a key indicator) was about 40% above the safe limits across major Indian cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Pune, etc. During the nationwide lockdown in India, we were able to gauge the impact of environmental damage that we all have done and introspect on how we could have lived differently. Blue skies, cleaner air, chirping birds were all a testimony to the sudden drop in vehicular emissions.
It has been estimated that the pandemic induced reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would amount to 5-8%. As cities reopen, India risks increasing emissions to pre-lockdown levels if buses are paltry and services poor. In fact, over the last few weeks, cars and motorized two-wheelers have already begun to regain their control over road space.
If we want to sustain the reduction in emissions, and guarantee people’s need to travel to work, a renewed and systematic thrust for public transport is fundamental; more fundamental than cleaning up vehicles. This is so because the prevalent rate at which vehicles are being added to the road in India, cleaner fuels cannot take us far in the fight against air pollution. It is also more fundamental than planting trees. The quantum of carbon emissions that can be reduced by bringing down vehicular emissions is far greater than fixing emissions by planting trees.
Therefore, augmenting public transport so that people transition to it is as important as making driving more expensive. And this shall be the real test for reducing air pollution in our cities.
ENDEMIC DISCRIMINATION TO PANDEMIC RECOVERY
In the wake of COVID-19, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) asked cities to develop plans for bus fleet expansion to implement physical distancing norms realising the significance of buses in enabling safe commuting to work. The MoHUA advisory also recognised that the fear of catching COVID-19 will lead to an increase in the number of private vehicles by those who can afford personal travel which will worsen air pollution, congestion, and road safety.
Clearly, COVID-19 poses a new challenge. However, the decline in the number of buses and its usage is not the right way to go. Many cities are showing that trains and buses may not be as risky as previously thought as long as passengers wear their masks correctly and maintain physical distancing. The level of exposure tends to be relatively low in buses as compared to other modes. Another factor that works in favour of city buses is that journeys are usually for smaller duration which limits the risk factor.
Running buses at half capacity, restricted seating, regularly cleaning and sanitising buses, and following physical distancing norms can counter transmission risks. These concerns are clearly laid out in Standard Operating Procedures for resuming bus services in several cities. However, all of this works to the greatest effect only when there are effective bus systems in cities with adequate numbers of buses to cater to the demand of people going to work. Crowding on buses must be reduced to make it safer. What this requires, therefore, is more buses and financial support from the states.
We need to realize that not having enough buses will lead to longer waiting hours and crowding at the bus stops, which we have already started to witness in many Indian cities. Subsequently, the bus-reliant communities (notoriously called ‘captive riders’ in the urban planning dictum) will be forced to shift to personal vehicles which will worsen the air quality. This can increase mortality due to covid as studies find a link between exposure to air pollution and increased risk of covid death.
In the absence of an adequate number of buses, people strictly dependent on buses or modes of public transport are facing extreme difficulties in accessing essentials. Expansion of the bus fleet, provision of safe bus services and integration with a properly designed non-motorized transport system will help fight not just air pollution but also the extreme divide in people’s ability to move. If we are concerned with making cities resilient can we really afford to continue the urban mobility divide which gives right to access to only those with personal automobiles?
Buses are going through financial hardship of a magnitude never seen before. To ensure that the essential services provided by them do not collapse altogether and they help in reviving the economy, it is important that states extend concrete political and financial support. At a time when many other countries in the world are trying to aggressively move away from private polluting modes and invest heavily in public transport, the absence of an economic stimulus for buses will continue the decades-long mismanagement of an unsustainable transport system.
‘LAKH KO 50’ BUS CAMPAIGN
This recognition of the role of buses in building smart, sustainable and safe cities in India forms the background to the ‘Lakh ko 50’ campaign by SUM Net India. The campaign also recognises that factors determining the better performance of buses are not just technical but rooted deeply in political, social, cultural and legal realms.
We noticed that buses receive abundant rhetorical support but are stifled in the absence of substantive assistance. At the same time, buses are used by lakhs of people in everyday life but they do not seem to have a voice. The ‘Lakh ko 50’ campaign is attempting to correct both these points by listening to the commuters and lending them a voice that drives the advocacy efforts.
On average India has only 8 buses per lakh individuals. The Service Level Benchmarks for Urban Transport published by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs sets a range of 40-60 buses per lakh to achieve an LoS (Level of Service) of “2”.
The Maharashtra chapter of this national campaign is being steered by Parisar. As an industrialized State with 50% of its population living in cities, Maharashtra has only 11 buses per lakh urban population. Many Municipal Corporations do not have a city bus service at all. Excluding Mumbai and Pune, the number of buses per lakh people in cities is less than 5!
As Maharashtra reopens, the need of the workers and students alike to go back to work and educational institutions requires a coordinated and large-scale response by the state government to reduce the disproportionate risk faced by them. And this is what the campaign demands.
As operators and commuters work on different principles, the paradox faced by buses for long has been that while ridership determines its success, overcrowding is what makes users (potential and otherwise) switch to other modes. This paradox can be addressed by expansion of the bus fleet; a need greater than ever especially at the peripheries of the cities and smaller cities.
CAMPAIGN & ADVOCACY
Our outreach kept the commuters and the problems faced by them at the centre of this campaign. As the Maharashtra chapter is focusing on cities both large and small, we used the regional language in all our communication. We realized that a lot of bus commuters, especially the ones in smaller cities are not on social media platforms. Therefore, we connected with them only through offline and whatsapp channels which resulted in a positive outcome.
We found that in all the cities bus riders could already tell what they wanted better. The need to document these wants and demands was realised. Stories of these commuters were compiled and shared over social media platforms and whatsapp.
It was important that these stories do not just remain voices in an echo chamber. We organised city Dialogues in Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur and Amravati to understand not just people’s problems but their demands too. And it was clear from all these local dialogues that there is an unmet demand for buses and the public process does not address them. Bus riders demanded fast, reliable, frequent, accessible and safe public transit, a basic level of service which is too rarely on offer.
As a result, we organised two state-level talks with the decision-makers where these voices of the commuters were presented and answers were sought. A month ago, during ‘Take the Bus: A Path to Sustainable Future for Maharashtra’ webinar Dr. Surendrakumar Bagde, the General Manager of BEST, declared that BEST is committed to making public transport efficient by expanding the bus fleet in a phase-wise manner. For Phase I, a target of 6,000 buses has been set, which is double the current fleet size. This is a major political breakthrough because with 6,000 buses on road, Mumbai will have 50 buses per lakh people. In Phase II, BEST aims to have 10,000 buses on road, which will be highest for any city in India.
Additionally, the Chairman and Managing Director of Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal Limited (PMPML), Mr. Rajendra Jagtap announced in July that Pune is committed to improving bus services by having 50 buses per lakh people. The necessary steps to make this possible are being carried out starting with hiring 650 new electric buses.
After years of ringing the alarm, this campaign is trying its best to make all the concerned users and stakeholders come together to convince the leadership to dedicate serious resources for a failing system. A petition in English and Marathi are crucial steps to ensure that.
While these are important milestones for #LakhKo50 campaign, our goal is more long-term where cities transition to good-quality public transport and people embrace it with pride. Therefore, we need a long-term engagement from people and decision-makers alike, efforts for which are being made every single day. Also, many other challenges remain like public transit workers at high risk, bus undertakings suffering from financial aid, taxes levied on public buses, the free hand to private automobiles, etc. And above all, while the conversation around the buses might have become politically active, it continues to remain culturally and socially lukewarm.
Given the importance of buses for the youth of cities, we brought together college students who shared their experience of travelling in a bus in the form of a Marathi poem penned by a bus commuter from Aurangabad. Last month, we also started using clips from popular movies to support the demand for buses. One of them recieved a very positive response and was viewed by hundreds across different social media platforms. It imagined a future where frequent bus services was not a surprise but the new normal.
We also reached out to regional influencers to raise awareness and demand support for the ‘Lakh Ko 50’ campaign in Maharashtra which helped us reach a large audience. Even expert voice of regional authors extended their support to the campaign and especially its importance in climate change.
We attempted to bring together different stakeholders to share their views on ‘the role of buses in building smart, safe, and sustainable cities’ during a Tweet chat with the hashtag #MahaBus50. One of its kind, the tweet chat was organized in both English and Marathi and speakers of both languages took part in this event. This event and many other outreach methods have granted the ‘Lakh ko 50’ campaign the necessary mobilizing muscle.
LET’S DEMAND BETTER
For decades, buses have been the lifeline of cities in India, and the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that buses are also the future of our city’s public transit. We acknowledge that the road to better buses will be a long journey but it need not be an arduous one.
So, let’s support public transport as they represent long term ecological vision in short term economic planning. Let’s support buses because development and environment need not be exclusive of each other. Let’s support our bus riders’ right to a safe and comfortable commute; they are truly our green crusaders. Please register your support here- English, Marathi.
(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)